"The earlier, the better" and the need for English in the global market

Another set of arguments often put forward by educationists to encourage the early learning of English does not concern us centrally in this chapter,

but it is nevertheless worth noting. The assumption is made that learning a second language at an early age is more likely to lead to the successful acquisition of that language in later life and that there is a cutoff age beyond which it is not possible to acquire additional languages to anything like native-speaker level. Quite apart from the fact that the native-speaker, or first-language-speaker, level might be considered a luxury in acquiring a global language and that this aim tends to be restricted to the acquisition of an additional language as a Kultursprache, the assumption is based on outdated theoretical positions from the late 1960s and 1970s that have been seriously challenged in the meantime.[1]

The major argument used in the Swiss discourse in favour of an early introduction of English into the cantonal school systems is that it is absolutely necessary in the world of business and global commerce. Without a knowledge of English—so runs this argument—school leavers will not be in a position to take up employment in a wide range of professions in which English is required and for which higher salaries can be expected. There is certainly a need for English in companies and firms that have regular business contacts with other parts of the world in which either English is the first language or English is used as a means of international communication. But we still need to retain a realistic assessment of precisely which Swiss businesses have a need for English-speaking employees and at what levels in the employment hierarchy the positions involving knowledge of English lie. In the vast majority of cases, active use of oral or written English is to be found at various levels in the managerial structure of firms, in export contacts, or in highly specialised international research teams. Grin has pointed out in a number of important articles (e.g. 2000, 2001, 2003) that it is certainly true that knowledge of English does entail a higher salary at present, but he argues that the financial advantage of English is likely to drop over time. The principle of supply and demand would decrease the financial value of English if the educational segment of the sociocultural marketplace were to produce more young people with an active knowledge of the language.

  • [1] One of the major theories used to bolster up such assumptions is Lenneberg’s Critical PeriodHypothesis, which goes back to the late 1960s and deals only with first language acquisition.
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